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How Good Can the Miami Dolphins Secondary Be Without Jalen Ramsey?

Ramsey would have put them over the top, but they still have a chance to be a top unit.

Houston Texans v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

It would seem that most Miami Dolphins fans have made it through the five stages of grief and finally accepted that they won’t see Jalen Ramsey play in a Dolphins uniform until late in the regular season. There’s no way to sugarcoat this, you can’t replace what Jalen Ramsey brings to the table. He isn’t just one of the best defensive backs, he’s one of the best defensive players in the NFL.

It would have been a real treat for Dolphins fans to see him pair up with Xavien Howard this season, but we’ll have to wait. That begs the question, how good can they be without him?

Replacing Ramsey’s Snaps

This will be the trickiest thing to do, but also provides the most opportunity for younger players on the roster. As was stated before, you won’t be able to replace what Ramsey brings. The Dolphins are lucky that they have another player on the roster who has been a number-one outside corner for most of his career (Xavien Howard).

He will reprise that role for much of this season and it seems likely that Kader Kohou will get the majority of the snaps from the slot. That leaves one spot at outside corner that needs to be filled. There are five players on the roster that have a legitimate shot to do so: Cam Smith, Noah Igbinoghene, Eli Apple, Trill Williams, and Nik Needham.

There’s been a good bit of noise about Igbo looking improved this camp, but I’m not biting this time. We had a cornerback room that was completely decimated by injuries in 2022 and there were contests where he didn’t even dress. Along with Igbo, I’m not buying that Eli Apple will take that spot. If he does, it doesn’t bode well for their young players at corner.

That leaves either Cam Smith, Trill Williams, or Nik Needham. Even though I have really high expectations for Trill, he’s been working at safety which would indicate they may have different plans for him. That would mean Nik Needham or Cam Smith are likely to step up and the two have taken starkly different paths to get where they are.

Cam Smith is a highly touted prospect with high-level athletic traits. He fell to Miami in the second round but could have easily been a first-round pick in this past year’s draft. I talked more about him in a previous article here. Having Smith break out in 2023 would be the best-case scenario for Miami.

While many Dolphins fans will associate Nik Needham with the slot, he started his career as a boundary corner and is likely better suited for that role. Needham had disappointing testing numbers and went undrafted back in 2019. He found his way onto a decimated Miami roster back then and has made the most out of every opportunity he’s gotten in the NFL. He’s only under contract through this season but could force his way onto the field with a strong bounce-back campaign after missing 2022 to injury.

Scheme Improvements

The biggest reason for optimism with the Miami Dolphins’ secondary coming into 2023 is the addition of Vic Fangio to the coaching staff. They’ll be going from a blitz-happy, man-heavy defense with Josh Boyer (and Brian Flores before that) to a hybrid cover-6/4/2 zone look with a ton of two-high shells and fewer blitzes.

Vic Fangio has helped to build numerous defensive back careers with this scheme. Over his last ten years as a coach (both as defensive coordinator and head coach), Fangio’s pass defenses have averaged 7th best in the NFL with none finishing worse than 16th (which came in 2020 with the Broncos). In that time frame, he’s had several defensive backs make all-pro and pro bowl teams.

Fangio has had so much success because he is able to disguise his coverages and force teams to take shorter completions. The more plays in a drive, the more likely that the defense will be able to make an impact play. It also helps to have good pass rushers (something Miami has in spades). This is also a defense that has benefited safeties specifically and the Dolphins have a star on the rise in Jevon Holland who could take the next step in his career.

Season Forecast

While it’s disappointing that Miami will be without Jalen Ramsey for a few months, there is reason to believe that their secondary will make huge strides either way. The Miami Dolphins finished with the 27th-ranked pass defense in 2022. If Fangio matches his worst result in this arena over the past decade, the Dolphins will jump 11 spots in 2023.

If Cam Smith is able to hit the ground running (all word from training camp is positive), there’s a good chance that this secondary will be much, much better than that, even without Jalen Ramsey.